Deal / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | April 25, 2008 | Comments ()
Three years ago, when I took up temporary residence out here in a hippie Mecca in the middle of a cold, desolate, culture-free central-New York wasteland (did you know that Ithaca is one of the largest cities in American not connected to an Interstate? Fact.), in an effort to meet a few folks in the area, I became part of a poker group, which met periodically to play Hold ‘Em and drink beer. I am, at best, a casual poker player; I like the camaraderie of the game more than the game itself. Now, don’t get me wrong: The folks in the poker group were good people from varied sociopolitical backgrounds, they just happened to be afflicted with one horrible fucking disease: Poker Dorkdom. Outside of a poker table, of course, they were regular people who carried on typical lives; some had children, some were in rock bands, and they were all cool people who were immensely pleasant to be around, except when they were at the poker table.
Have any of you met a Poker Dork before? Good fucking God. These people can sit at a poker table for hours on end, not only gambling on the hands they currently hold, but carrying on lengthy (lengthy) conversations about past poker hands — poker hands they had last week, last year, or in 1994. They talk about their biggest busts, their glorious wins, and some of them can even discuss, at length, games they played online, down to the exact cards they were holding and what everyone else was holding in June of 2005. Once they run out of their own poker-playing stories, they start telling others — their friends’ or acquaintances’ past victories and failures. They even talk, ad infinitum, about poker matches they saw on television! It can go on for hours, and the beer only fuels their tales of card-playing ribaldry. In fact, I’ve come to think of it as a strategy: If they can’t beat you with their cards, they bore you to the point that you play every open-ended straight hand you have until you either win or go home, whichever is the quickest route away from that particular moshfuck of tedium.
Deal is the cinematic equivalent of a Poker Dork, a drama-free movie that boils down to one simple clichéd message: Don’t play the cards, play the player. It’s a droning, inert film with all the excitement you’d expect from people flipping cards and glaring at one another longingly, as though they are either going to take all of their money or bend them over a chair and fuck them. When not even Eric Bana and Robert Duvall, combined, can turn out a decent poker movie (see, Lucky You), how anyone imagined that a Botoxed-to-the-hilt, expressionless Burt Reynolds and the kid from “Reaper” (Bret Harrison) could churn out a anything other than lousiness is beyond me. Hell, not even Edward Norton and Matt Damon could create a poker movie much better than the slightly-more-than mediocre Rounders, a film that only a man as dimwitted and culturally static as Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons could love.
Deal is another in a grand tradition of bland films that follows the generic sports-movie template: A young natural, Alex (Harrison), who is a wiz with the cards but still a little green when it comes to “playing the player,” hooks up with mentor Tommy Vinson (Reynolds), an old-timer who gave up cards 20 years ago after losing the big game and nearly his wife. Tommy trains Alex in the art of picking up a player’s tells, then buys him a hooker (Shannon Elizabeth) to boost his confidence, thus creating a rift between mentor and mentee once Alex discovers his girlfriend is a prostitute. After Alex breaks up with Tommy over the revelation, Tommy decides to again to risk his marriage, while Alex betrays his parents’ confidence, so that the two can enter the big game, a poker tournament with $8 million at stake which ultimately pits mentee vs. mentor. And though both wife and parents initially threaten to disown Tommy and Alex, respectively, they ultimately come around when they realize that T & A actually have a chance to win the big prize, perhaps the most ludicrous plot turn in the whole film, something almost akin to a father telling her daughter she’s not allowed to whore herself out, but coming around once he realizes that she’s actually a really good prostitute!
In essence, the entire film is a blender of close-ups, banality, shitty sunglasses and porn moustaches written with only an ending in mind; Mark Weinstock and Gil Cates, Jr. (who also directs) clearly thought up a cool poker gimmick and then revolved their entire movie around it, failing to inject it with anything other than platitudes, fortune-cookie poker advice, and filler musical montages featuring flying cards and falsely emotive expressions. As far as poker gimmicks go, I suppose the “twist” in the end is moderately cool, if you’re a poker dork and the tactic means something to you (we called it “Coning It,” a reference to Yankees’ pitcher David Cone at the end of his career) but really: How much tension can you expect to extract from two poker hands and a couple of shitty actors glaring at their cards, then each other, then back to their cards again while an overweight bald man offers play-by-play? Indeed, Deal is basically the poker scene in Casino Royale drawn out into 90 minutes minus Daniel Craig, alcohol, decent cinematography, and skilled director, and strained of any entertainment value whatsoever (even of the accidental variety). If you’ve ever watched an unedited poker tournament on TV, this is what Deal was like, only not nearly as thrilling.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.